The Heads Of Xbox, PlayStation Talk 4K, VR And Exclusives

Image: Lifehacker

The two biggest names in gaming are gearing up for a heated head-to-head battle in the lead-up to Christmas.

In one corner is Microsoft with the 4K-enabled Xbox One X. That goes up against Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro which launched last year, and while Sony has undoubtedly come out on top in terms of number of consoles sold so far this hardware generation, Microsoft will soon have the most powerful machine.

This matters when the majority of games continuing to come to both platforms. It means each brand is working hard to differentiate itself to gamers looking to expand their options and, importantly, to those still waiting to jump in.

In terms of what PlayStation has that Xbox doesn't, Sony's head of sales and marketing Jim Ryan insists there is a range of games on PS4 that you simply can't get on Microsoft's machines.

"They obviously have some very good exclusive games, but I think when you put the two side-by-side there is a range, breadth and depth of exclusive games on PlayStation," he told Fairfax Media on the sidelines of the E3 expo in Los Angeles earlier this month.

"This year you'll have GT Sport coming before Christmas, and a really great-looking Uncharted experience. And that on the back of Horizon Zero Dawn."

Ryan notes these three games represent Sony's "development centres of excellence" in Japan, the US and Europe respectively.

Image: Kotaku

For his part, Microsoft's Phil Spencer backs the selection of games on Xbox, saying the titles it showcased at E3 was its "most diverse line-up ever."

"I liked having Japanese games on our stage, I liked having things like [French indie] The Last Night, which I thought was just a fantastic artsy game." He also draws a contrast between painterly platformer Ori and the Will of the Wisps and multiplayer explosion fest Anthem, very different games that both featured at Xbox's conference.

Overall though, Spencer says what really sets Xbox apart is that it's wholly concerned with "putting the gamer at the centre".

"Things like [subscription service] Games Pass ... things like supporting the library of games that you already own. We're all about offering the gamer choice."

Spencer also outlined some examples of PlayStation practices he didn't think would fly on team Xbox.

"This one will be a little divisive: I'm not somebody who goes and signs a marketing deal to keep PlayStation fans from getting a certain skin or doing a certain strike," he says, referring to Sony's "strategic partnerships" for games like Destiny 2.

Players on Xbox and PlayStation will both be able to play the game, but certain pieces of additional content — like weapons, cosmetic goods and stages — will only be accessible to those on PlayStation.

"I don't see those things as positive things for the industry," Spencer says. He also points to cross-platform play (where PC, Xbox and Nintendo Switch gamers can play together in certain games, a scheme PlayStation wants no part of), and backwards compatibility as examples of Xbox's gamer-first mentality.

Image: Gizmodo

Sony's Ryan suggests that there's more than one way to be "gamer first".

"We set our stall out there with what we consider to be forward-facing innovation," he says.

"Last year we announced and launched PlayStation VR, announced and launched [the] PS4 Pro, and there's only so much time and money and human bandwidth to bring platform level initiatives to market."

While PlayStation was shipping these machines, Ryan says, Xbox was implementing a "mid-cycle introduction of backwards compatibility," which means games have to be retrofitted on a per-game basis.

"That's an equally valid approach, but is 'gamer first' getting PS4 Pro out in 2016 versus getting Xbox One X out in late 2017? I don't know. It's easy to throw slogans like that around but they're both valid approaches."

And speaking of virtual reality, the technology was generating a lot of buzz when PlayStation launched its headset last year and, while games have dripped out slowly over the proceeding time, the device hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Ryan says they're just getting started.

"It's still really early, and everybody is still learning about it. What makes a great VR experience? I don't think anybody properly knows yet," he says.

"All the old preconceptions of how things work, they don't apply in VR. It's going to take a while for it all to shake out."

PlayStation is currently "trying to get a lot of insight and knowledge into how people are using VR" and the various controllers PlayStation offers to use with it," Ryan says, "and clearly we will reflect very carefully upon that knowledge base and seek to, as time passes, come up with better ways of allowing people to enjoy VR".

If he had to guess, more new, VR-specific controllers "is a very logical train of thought". "And there's definitely going to be a role for some sort of bespoke interface," he says.

For Spencer, there's no rush. Despite previously confirming the powerful 2017 Xbox would eventually support VR, he made no mention of it at E3's One X reveal.

"We're big believers in mixed reality, but we're kind of responding to what our customers are asking us to show them right now," he says, pointing to Windows and not Xbox as the place where developers are most interested in playing around with AR and VR.

As the technology stands, Spencer also doesn't think be best VR experiences can be consistently delivered in the lounge room since setups differ so substantially.

"The take up and take down is not easy," he says. "The usability of a device in your home is something you really have to think through."​

Image: Gizmodo

Even though he just introduced a powerful new console, Spencer doesn't really care which machine gamers use to get at Xbox's range of games and services.

"You've got people who haven't joined this generation of consoles yet. Maybe they're PC gamers or they're maybe just still running their Xbox 360. I think for that customer we look at the Xbox One S," Spencer says.

The One X then is for people who want the very best, and for PC gamers who have already experienced 4K gaming and know it's the real deal. Since a gamer's library of Xbox games — and a growing number of Windows games — go with them from device to device, Spencer says games you buy now will only get better in the future if and when you upgrade to a new machine.

The One X is also smaller than the One S, and both are many times smaller than the original Xbox One, which was released before Spencer's time as boss. This focus on size is partly for aesthetics, but also because Spencer is conscious of the fact that not all play spaces are as large and accommodating as the American lounge room.

"It's easy for us to become so centric on our houses and our setups and the size of our TVs," he says. "You know there are quite a few people that take our consoles and plug them in into monitors, and are actually using them on a desk."

For his part, Ryan was keen to extol the virtues of PlayLink — a new standard for casual, party-focused games on PlayStation 4 — as a way Sony was broadening its horizons. The system, which lets a number of people play games together using their own smartphones or tablets, plus the TV, is just the thing to keep growth ticking along now that almost all dedicated gamers have a PS4, Ryan says.

"It's quite a significant and important initiative that we're taking, as we move past 60 million PS4s sold. By definition you sort of run out of core gamers and you have to talk to a more casual audience," he says, noting that while the big, cinematic type games PlayStation showed at its conference are still very important, PlayLink is a new kind of game that the company is still sorting out how to promote.

"You can't really have five people playing these games on a stage with thousands of people watching. We've tried to do that sort of thing internally to get the message across, it doesn't work," he says.

Asked if the new direction would take PlayStation up against a resurgent Nintendo, its original rival, Ryan laughs.

"It's never wise to try and pigeon-hole Nintendo, and never wise to try and predict where they're going next, that's one of the really great things about them," he says.

"It's very possible and interesting to have the conversation we just had about the different approaches between Sony and Microsoft, but trying to overlay Nintendo onto that template is just impossible."

While he may not see them as direct competition, Ryan predicts the success of Nintendo's latest console, the Switch, will be good news for everyone.

"In the Australian market there's been a sort of retailer contraction, a bit of a sense of things folding in on themselves, so I think Nintendo coming back can only help the ecosystem there," he says.


This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

The author travelled to E3 2017 as a guest of Ubisoft.


Comments

    As someone who owns neither and isn't getting one I would lean towards the PS4 due to having what look like a way better selection of games already out.

    The only hook MS has in me is Forza Horizon 3.

      I think I enjoy Drive Club a bit more than Forza, although Forza certainly has more cars.

    I still have no idea why any company would want to be exclusive to 1 console. Sony or Microsoft must either be paying fortune to keep it exclusive or own the game studio. Otherwise, how would it be financially beneficial to release your game on only one console?

    Honestly, if anyone can tell me, id love to know.

      You are right. The only companies that would consider this are one that are starting out and need a publicity deal that Sony or MS could give them. For instance, Sony's PS Plus deal will give the developer a set price but will also advertise the game as part of the IGC line-up. People who don't have PS Plus will then also become aware of the game. Exclusivity in cases like this gives more exposure and potentially greater sales than going multi-platform.

      Most of Sony's exclusives are either owned studios, IGC games or small indies that can only do one version of a game at a time. There are exceptions, of course, where Sony will do a deal with a studio like Quantic Dream.

      MS has fewer studios, so it is now trying to court the indies as Sony did a few years ago. MS attributes part of Sony's success with the PS4 to its inclusive attitude of offering AAA-exclusives as well as indie exclusives. MS has now announced the indies but is still a bit light on the AAA exclusives (due to the aforementioned studio shortage). I expect that MS (as announced) has inked a few AAA deals with bigger studios, but the games are not yet ready to be announced.

      In short, no real financial reason to go exclusive, but exceptions such as money hats, advertising exposure, manpower limitations etc.

      Simpler development, publishing and advertising bonuses, and some dev houses that are "owned" by the big 3.

      Cost of dev time on altering + testing for a new system versus how much it's expected to bring in on top of the existing version?

        Fair point, im sure that could play a part in it. But, if you have just spend years making a game it seems like a "short" step to go through to make it available for millions more people.

    This one will be a little divisive: I'm not somebody who goes and signs a marketing deal to keep PlayStation fans from getting a certain skin or doing a certain strike

    No, Phil, you'd rather sign stuff like Rise of the Tomb Raider and keep an entire game out of PlayStation fans' hands for 12 months.

      But that's his point ... the article doesn't really elaborate but he's had many interviews since where he's said he wouldn't do that again. Either way, 12m exclusivity =/= exclusivity.

      P3 is not a fan of exclusivity, period. But Sony fanboi's continue to hold their first party titles up as a crowning achievement, whereas Microsoft are releasing products to multiple platforms and perceivably suffering because they 'don't have any exclusives'.

      Larry Hryb confirmed this at PAX AUS last year - saying that their investment was going to hardware rather than exclusivity.

      Some big cognitive shifts need to happen before gamers align with Microsoft thinking ... I'm not convinced they ever will ... but in the meantime, I'll just play whatever console or PC game takes my fancy at any given time.

        Yeah, I think that MS has made a mistake by going hardware rather than exclusivity, as long as Sony and Nintendo have a stable of studios.

        If Sony and Nintendo weren't able to pump out such compelling stuff then MS would be on a better wicket.

        If Phil isn't a fan of exclusivity, you'd have to question whether he's the right guy to be heading a competitive gaming platform. (By the way I think he's probably full of shit, since just last year - under his watch - Xbox did a deal with FIFA for exclusive content in FUT).

        Mark my words, MS will bring out some AAA exclusives besides Forza, Gears, Halo. Maybe not many, but enough to bring some gamers back to Xbox.

    MS taking the high road on exclusivity after Tomb Raider??

      That's what I thought, but that might have been Donny M's work, given that Phil took over in 2014 and RotTR came out in 2015.

      Still, the man has brass balls, saying what he did when MS has done exactly the same as Sony in the past with stuff like CoD map access etc.

    As an XBox 360 owner with Xbox Live Gold account that garnered a lot of XBO games from the Games with Gold program. So I have vested interest with continuing with XBox and will likely go that way.

    This situation feels like the start of last generation. Except this time it's Microsoft that has the more advanced console, the higher price point and their competitor has a huge lead.

    If Microsoft dropped their price by $50 maybe it'd more appetising to consumers. Hopefully it'll sell more by being more powerful.

    It'll be interesting to see how the market reacts when its launched

      I have a bit of voyeuristic interest in watching the launch as well. I find the messaging that they expect to sell more One S's than X's curious ... but I'm sure some marketing consultant or focus group has told them it's going to work so I'll watch this space. :)

        I'm guessing MS figure that the people who can afford a 4K TV probably wouldn't baulk at paying $100 more for a console that supports it.

    I have a long memory & remember all the sh*t microsoft pulled at the start of this console generation, "Those with conectivity problems, We have a offline product for you, It's called the xbox 360" The gamer is first now but before the xbox was a "Entertainment system" Now it's a real gaming console again.. Microsoft said no to Sony's offer of cross platform play last generation but now they want it on their terms. No pc gamer is going to buy the "most powerful console", If they buy a console, It will be the one with the games. Sony's.. Scalebound look interesting enough to buy a xbox for... Still can't believe that Microsoft's hubris thought that ppl would call the xbone "The one" lol Microsoft has to do better than a powerful console with no games to play to win me over. I'll stick with pc & ps4 thanks.

    PSVR is actually a pretty remarkable achievement - the headset itself is fantastic, it's just the PS4 that limits its capabilities. Even then the lineup of games on the PSVR is pretty strong so long as you're interested in VR, and it's garnered more interest than the Vive or Rift despite being inferior in execution. It's still a niche area but as the headsets become cheaper VR might become more popular. I think this was Sony's biggest accomplishment this generation, even if it doesn't look like it on paper.

      The problem with console VR right now is the head set isn't wireless. Once the headset is no longer tethered to the console and has a decent battery life, VR will become more viable. Also VR is a solitary experience, the living room might not be the best place for it.

        I don't think that matters to as many people as you might think. A tether is annoying, but not having to deal with batteries going flat (and displays chew batteries) or potential latency problems (depending on what spectrum they occupy) is going to win out for a while yet. Clearly hasn't stopped many early adopters thus far.

          For Early adopters, it's not a barrier to entry, but I really can't see it becoming widespread until they solve that problem. Until that time, it will remain gimmicky and niche.

          Last edited 28/06/17 10:15 am

            It's not really 'gimmicky' though if you've used it - the immersion offered by the Vive is incredible. The barrier to entry financially is a bit too high for most people - except for the PSVR which is much lower. The 'gimmick' argument is usually brought up by people who haven't used a decent VR headset.

            It's niche for the same reason. Which is why PSVR is remarkable and Sony's great achievement for making it more popular.

              I have demo'ed the Occulus and the immersion is not in question. But that cable was the biggest problem, if someone wasn't holding the cable up I'd be tangled in it.

              From what I've read the PSVR diminishes the issue the best, but the issue is still there.

              FWIW, by gimmicky, I mean that you have use tricks to get around physical design problems. Like, only facing one direction so the user doesn't get tangled up in the cable. Or using teleports for movement to avoid motion sickness. Wireless would solve a lot of issues and make VR less gimmicky.

                Well, it won't, really - you're still limited by physical space, and I don't think we're going to come up with a solution for that for a long time. The disconnect between physical movement and visual perception is always going to cause some degree of nausea, that's just physiology at work.

                I've used the PSVR and the Vive and do get motion sick with traditional movement and standing still, although it gets better the more you experience it. Not having a cable would be more convenient, but it doesn't change the fact that if your eyes think you're moving, but you're clearly not, you'll feel weird. Roomscale avoids this by having you actually move.

    I find the "Exclusives" issue tricky. I agree with Phil Spencer in that it's bad for the gamer, and I absolutely love the idea of XBox Play Anywhere where you buy a game and own it on XBox and PC. But just from reading the comments here, exclusives are swaying customers. So how do you fight against that and still remain competitive against an opponent who is not?

    Also, with regards to VR, I think MS is biding their time building up their own platform on Windows. If and when that grows big enough and games are coming out for it they'll make a big announcement that anything that works on Windows Mixed Reality will work on XBox (developers willing). By that stage they'll also have quite a few third-party headsets they could probably get to work on XBox no issue.

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